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An overdue update, with an unrelated discussion of campaign advancement…

So much for October, I guess.

Suffice to say that the last month has been one of weird obligation and unforeseen activity.  As I have hinted on a couple of prior occasions, I’m in the process of looking for a new place to live, and many of those birds came home to roost in the previous several weeks.  Nothing is precisely set into stone at the moment, but it bears noting that I am in the midst of packing up my library against the eventuality of having to get it shipped.

As such, there wasn’t any available time to sit down and hammer out the requisite number of words to satisfy my own loose definitions of blogging.  In some ways, I’m glad that I had already cut back from my daily schedule of updates, as that would have been a rather abrupt shift.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not vaguely mortified by my lack of maintenance, but at least there’s less comparative damage.  In the interim, I’m hoping to be able to offer slightly more timely updates, if only for my own standards.

Right now, there are only two games that are being run in my immediate circle, and as I have come to expect, I’m running both of them.  The first is the ever-present and close to finishing Carrion Crown campaign, which has been ongoing for about three years at this point.  I have to assume that I’m approaching some sort of record, at this point, given that the entire campaign is structured to be finished within a six month timeframe.  Yay, me.

There’s an odd tendency that I’m noting within Pathfinder (as a result of where we’re at in Carrion Crown), which I will have to pay closer attention to.  Having run about half of Savage Tide, as well as played to a similar point within Rise of the Runelords, I’ve started to suspect that there is a tipping point around 12th level when modules start to ramp up the presence of casters as the primary foes in adventures.  With Savage Tide, it happened with the kopru Cleric in Golismorga, which immediately followed up with a sorcerer in the early part of the next module.  In Carrion Crown, the Witches of Barstoi that show up in Ashes at Dawn offer a similar threat.  And Runelords had Sins of the Saviors, which offered a whole variety of casters to bedevil the player characters at that point.

The reason that I bring this up is that it seems to offer a sharp uptick of difficulty in the module series, one that I hadn’t been particularly expecting.  Most of the foes in the modules were able to be dealt with in a more or less martial way in the lead-up modules, so springing a heavily tweaked caster on the party seems like a bit of a shift.  As a player, I know that I hadn’t been ready for the tactical spellcraft that had been assumed to be in place for the fifth module of Runelords, and it’s fairly evident that none of my players, in either Carrion Crown or Savage Tide were up for the task.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I should feel about these narrative shifts.  I mean, on one hand, it is logical that the foes should ramp up in difficulty as the modules progress, but by and large, it’s something of a sudden change.  In the first ten levels, it doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of caster presence.  A case could be made that lower level casters aren’t nearly as much of a threat, given the limited scope of spells and the relative lack of hit points and saves.  But the few exceptions that I can bring to mind show me that they can be used effectively (the first thing that occurs to me is the main villain of The Varnhold Vanishing in Kingmaker), but otherwise they seem to be either absent or largely ineffective.

Looking back over the early parts of Carrion Crown, I see that my perceptions were out of whack.  All the way along, there has been a proper representation of spellcasters, in one form or another.  In Haunting of Harrowstone, there were a couple of foes within the ranks of the ghosts, but the spells were more utilitarian or basic damage than anything else.  In Trial of the Beast, the main sorcerous adversaries were Vorkstag and Grine, the masters of the chymic works, and again, most of their base repertoire was defensive in nature.  In the first half of Broken Moon, the master of the lodge offered the only mystical interference, and with the exception of Black Tentacles and Stinking Cloud, none of it was terribly remarkable.  In the second half, the climactic battle with the necromancer only offers a challenge if he’s been given a number of rounds to prepare.  Otherwise, his spells in combat are meant to keep him away from combat.

Continuing on, we find ourselves in Wake of the Watcher, where there are a sizable number of clerics wandering around, but most of them are multi-classed, which limits their repertoire.  The cultists in town can only cast 2nd level spells, which limits their utility, and even the head cleric who shows up slightly later only has a couple of truly inconvenient spells at his disposal.  The fungal oracle and the deep one cleric that show up in the final section have a better range of ability, but only the fungus is able to do anything interesting.

All right, so there is a fair representation of spellcasters through the module series.  Given this, I have to assume that there were a fair selection of them in Savage Tide and the others.  So it isn’t a problem of absence.  That drops it over onto being a problem of not being an overt threat.  And as such, something changes over somewhere around 10th level, the point where 1st Edition D&D suggested that the adventurers retired.

Back when I was living overseas, one of the resident GM’s there had noted that he hated running a campaign much past 10th level.  At the time, it had taken me aback, given my general outlook.  I assumed that most campaigns died around that time (as was my experience) due to player apathy, time constraints or similar ideas.  Whenever I had run a proper D&D game, it flamed out somewhere in the 10th~12th level range just as a matter of course.  To have someone want to intentionally kill the game at that point fascinated me.

Without deeper study (it’s late, and I’m running a fairly notable headache; in the same breath, if I don’t finish this in some manner, it will languish alongside the half-dozen other entries that I’ve been working on), I have to think this is the point where the game itself kicks over into more nuanced play styles.  Sure, I’ve played some form of D&D for about 75% of my actual life, but it’s a complex enough system that I haven’t tried to take it apart to study the raw numbers.

So, as it stands, there’s more to consider in this whole bit, insofar as spell utility is concerned and how much of a threat a spellcaster of a given level ends up being.  Alas, it’s not a question I can immediately answer in a single entry.

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Savage Tide Addendum – A Note on Characters

In working through my review of the Savage Tide Adventure Path, it occurs to me that I never bothered to illuminate the actual characters that we’d been running through the modules.  I’m not entirely sure that it’s completely needed for the sake of reading the reviews, but there are some aspects of the character choices that shifted some of the focus of the game as it unfolded.

A bit of background, if you would permit…  When my group was running through Legacy of Fire, we had something of a rotating crew for the Adventure Path.  There were two mainstays, myself and another guy, and something like ten people that changed in and out, depending on schedules and the like.  The GM was less than pleased with the shifting roster of characters, but the game tended to revolve around the two characters anyway, so it didn’t matter as much as it otherwise might have.

These two characters were fairly weirdly built.  Because of the Achievement Feats that Paizo used briefly in Legacy, the Cleric spent a couple of modules being unable to fight effectively, as the one Feat he was chasing after hinged on his ability to cure damage while never inflicting it.  This had the effect of pushing my Druid / Ranger into the prime combat role, backed up by his Animal Companion.  A couple of Feats for my character were spent in maximizing the Animal Companion to serve as a second fighter on the field, and the rest of the build went into pushing my damage output as high as it could go while trying to push the Initiative Modifier to its limit.

In the end, the strategy tended to be pretty simple.  My character would hit as hard and fast as he possibly could, and the Cleric would stand by to keep him conscious long enough to survive the ridiculous beatdown.  The Cleric had to stay fairly equivalent in Armor Class, just to keep alive, and my character spent most of his time making sure that none of the relevant creatures got within range of the Cleric.  And surprisingly, it worked.

As such, it became pretty evident that Clerics were a fine thing and worth keeping alive.

When we sat down to make up characters for Savage Tide, there was some debate.  One of the players was the same guy that had played the Cleric in Legacy.  While he enjoyed his Cleric well enough, he felt he’d done his time with that build and could let someone else take up the reigns.  Since it looked like he was going to be one of two players for the game (we were later joined by a third player, a couple of sessions in), he floated the idea of playing two characters each, for the sake of balance.  In short, he didn’t see being able to catch the same lightning in a bottle, as I wasn’t going to be playing the other half.  Nothing against the other guy, but his experience with Pathfinder was pretty well minimal compared to my own.  It’s what happens.

So, instead of working up a Cleric, the first player built a Dwarven Ranger and a Half-Elf Gun Mage.  The second player ended up building a Gnome Druid and a Human Rogue.  The third player, when he finally showed up, built a stock Human Barbarian, with something of a Lord Greystoke background.  Sadly, this characterization has since been largely forgotten in the mean time, but such is life.

The Dwarven Ranger was a solidly built character, with very few frills.  He’s remained pretty steady as the ‘wade into the center of combat and hope to beat something to death before it kills him’ sort of person.  The same goes for the other player’s Rogue.  The player is a lot more tactically driven in his characterization, but my tendency to not draw a lot of tactical maps has slowed down the utility of the character.  It’s what happens, sadly.  The Barbarian exists to charge into combat and deal as much damage as possible as quickly as possible.  He has something of a glass cannon template on the character, as he’s only able to output a stupid amount of damage for a single round, but that’s usually enough to take care of most things.

The Gun Mage is a modified version of the Magus, with an emphasis on ranged combat with spells instead of melee.  I’d loved the flavor of character class in the Iron Kingdoms setting (back when it was D20), but the power curve on the class was incredibly weak.  With a little consideration, I brought over the flavor of the original and tweaked a couple of details on the Magus to make it work.

And well, I pretty much threw out the Firearms Rules that Paizo had put into their Ultimate Combat book, but that’s sort of to be expected.  I’ve read a couple of accounts that even they regret putting those rules into play.  Hence why such things don’t end up in Skull & Shackles, where it would make sense.  In my variant, firearms are low-end magic items, functioning very similarly to crossbows.

Finally, there was the Gnomish Druid.  For the most part, I can’t say anything terribly negative about the character, but this was one of those cases where the dreams of the player far outreached the practical aspects of the actual build.  The player had in mind a snake-aspected Druid, where they’d have a venomous Animal Companion that would stealthily make its way into combat and lay low any takers.  It was an interesting idea, but the reality of the rules wasn’t able to make it come close to the vision he had in mind.  Snake companions will take a long time to be skilled enough to sneak like that, they will never have the Sneak Attack ability, and it would probably take custom feats to be able to make them able to instantly kill with their venom.  While it would have been interesting, it would have taken a lot of work to make any part of his concept effective, and a practical Druid build – while dull at points – ended up serving a lot better.  This is not to go into the whole ‘poison use’ aspect of things and the morally shaky ground of keeping the character non-evil.  The same player felt that his Rogue should be able to use poisons without drawback, and I held to the hard lines of earlier editions, if nothing else.

Lacking any amount of curative magic, the characters fell back on Use Magic Device and a scattering of Wands.  This worked well enough for the early levels, as there wasn’t much beyond the basic Cure Light and Moderate spells, there came a point (as noted in the Here There Be Monsters review) when the lack of spell versatility came up short.

The same thing happened with the Gun Mage.

This is not to say that any build of Magus is weak, by any means.  The problem is that they’re extremely focused on being able to do a lot of damage and wreak holy hell on opponents.  Given their narrow concentration, however, they have a tendency to lack utility spells when needed.  Or the utility spells take a lot longer to show up than they would with a standard Wizard or Sorcerer.  Nowhere is this more evident than with the spell Teleport.  A normal Wizard is able to move around easily with its aid as of 9th level.  For a Magus, they don’t have access to it until 13th level, by which point it’s almost been forgotten.  This is not to mention the obvious nature of taking up a spell slot that would be better served with being able to deal damage.

The lack of Teleport is particularly crippling in Savage Tide, where the ability to access magic items and gear is severely curtailed by the remote nature of the setting.  Farshore is hell and gone from Sasserine, where the player characters would be able to get hold of the necessary expendable magic, such as Wands and Potions.  Which by odd coincidence, they were burning through at an increased rate of speed due to not having a Cleric in the party.

With the near death of the Gun Mage from Mummy Rot, the players collectively chose to retire the Druid into an NPC (she now trains dinosaurs for the villagers) and build out a Cleric for the second player’s second character.  Part of this decision was the lack of curative versatility, and part of it owed directly to the fact that, at the time they brought in the new Cleric, she’d be close to the proper level for Raise Dead and Breath of Life.  The player who had the Cleric in Legacy of Fire swears by the spell, and we’ve house ruled it to be included on the Spontaneous Casting list for Good Clerics of certain level.  Compared to the expense of constantly buying new Raise Dead scrolls to carry along, this shift was considered wholly necessary.

In the mean time, the Magus invested money in Boots of Teleport to make up for his particular deficiency, being that transit back and forth to Sasserine is necessary enough to warrant the purchase.  There are still certain shortcomings that a Magus retains, but compared to the lack of a Cleric, they’re much less insurmountable.

Savage Tide #6 – The Lightless Depths

So, in case I hadn’t made my case clearly enough in my reviews of Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, the Paizo staff loves them some Lovecraft.  For my own part, I’ll assume that much of this stems from the predilections of Wes Schneider, but that’s mainly because he did the heavy lifting on what amounts to be my favorite module of the entire Adventure Path thus far.

In the aftermath of the attack on Farshore, the characters go over what intelligence they were able to gather from the log books and survivors of the fleet.  One reference notes that the black pearls that are responsible for triggering the Savage Tides come from a shadowy group known as the Lords of Dread.  (Anyone who’s been paying attention up to now can predict that this refers to the Kopru that live beneath the island.)  The pirate fleet has been negotiating with an ancient and legendary Dragon Turtle that dwells on the northern edge of the island, and in return he allows them passage to the caverns and lava tubes that lead to the Lords of Dread.  People are enslaved, brought to the Lords and in return, they’re given the vile black pearls.

From here, the characters are given a pretty straightforward directive from Lavinia.  They’re to deal with the Dragon Turtle, either peaceably or otherwise, gain access to the passages below, and remove the influence of the Lords of Dread.  She even fronts some of her parents’ accumulated wealth if the characters choose to bribe their way in.

It should go without saying that my players rolled their eyes at this.

The Dragon Turtle in question, Emraag the Glutton, is a creature of legend amongst the local Olman tribesmen, a dread aspect of myth and terror that none have ever faced and lived.  His lair is littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships that dared enter his domain, and it is only in folly that the characters seek conflict with him.  And it is largely assumed, from the text of the module, that players should have discretion in this affair, as Emraag’s treasure isn’t even detailed beyond suggested levels of wealth.

In a lot of ways, this reminded me of the set-piece encounter in Legacy of Fire, where the characters had the option of fighting a Dragon Turtle within the extraplanar realm of Kakishon.  The set-up for that particular encounter had some problems, in that the text had never been edited to make sense in the scope of the module, but the actual fight and the lair beneath were pretty fun.

The encounter with Emraag was fairly quick and to the point, as the players had carefully prepared themselves with a stock of magic items (specifically, they returned to Sasserine via Teleport and outfitted everyone with Cloaks of the Manta Ray) and careful tactics.  Emraag put up a reasonable fight, but a party of 11th characters tend to either win out within a matter of rounds against a single foe, or they’re dead pretty much instantly.

From there, it’s a long slog through the lava tubes to the ancient city now taken by the Kopru.  There are certain sorts of parallels to the old AD&D D1-2 module, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, where the characters are kept to a linear track and run into keyed encounters as the go.  Along the way, they encounter tribes of Troglodytes that have been corrupted to worship Demogorgon (a similar parallel to the corrupted worship of the Deep Ones in Wake of the Watcher, strangely), as well as a non-corrupted Trog Cleric who offers to help them along their way.

This was when I ended up shifting one of the encounters of the module to fit one of the characters.  The Barbarian had been flailing about, trying to settle on a build that offered a little more flavor for the setting.  Around this time in the module series, there’s an accompanying Dragon Magazine article that offers up a Prestige Class for a tattooed Totemic Demon Slayer.  Since the player had recently finished playing Far Cry 3, the option of a Tatau-based warrior appealed directly to him.  The thing is, the Prestige Class in question had a 10 level progression, which would have meant that he’d be just short of completing the progression when the module series ended, had I introduced the class when it was supposed to appear.  So, instead of waiting until the beginning of the next module, I allowed the NPC in question (who is saved from being sacrificed in this module) to initiate the character immediately.

There are a scattering of encounters in the module that hearken back to the proper roots of the original ‘underdark’ flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (again, we could talk about Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, among others) with creatures like slimes and puddings and ropers.  There was also a strange sort of Beholder subplot, where my players came to appreciate the dire reputation that these particular iconic creatures enjoy.  Suffice to say, they found that they hated dealing with intelligent and powerful monsters that generate Anti-Magic Fields.

The module starts to pick up when they’re first introduced to the original inhabitants of the ancient city in the form of strangely petrified Aboleths.  This works on a level of pacing, where they discover a single petrified specimen (in the setting lore, any Aboleth caught outside of water secretes a hard shell to keep them from dying; the problem is that they remain conscious and go mad over the centuries), followed by a couple more.  When they finally encounter one that isn’t petrified or mad, it manages to secure their cooperation without them even realizing what’s going on.  They agree to destroy the seals that isolate the ancient city – now revealed to be an Aboleth city that was ravaged by the magics of the Olman gods – which will destroy the hold the Kopru have over the island.

It’s not really a perfect solution, as it trades the predations of the Kopru for the cosmic madness of the Aboleth, but it’s a better solution than what’s going on now.

And finally, they reach the city.

For me, this was a direct reference to Lovecraft’s only long work, At the Mountains of Madness, even going so far as to include a vaguely public domain version of a Shoggoth.  The city in question is Golismorga, a showcase of weird biotechnology – the buildings are described in the most awful manner possible, talking of randomly sprouting eyes and oozing, wound-like orifices – and general blasphemy.  Much of the lore of the city derives from the 3.5 book, Lords of Madness, where the Aboleth gods and cosmic horrors are detailed a little more.

I loved it, going into greater and greater description of the writhing insanity that the city was built on.  It didn’t help that they happened upon what amounted to being a tour guide in the form of Rakis-Ka, a peculiar form of wandering undead known as a Devourer.  I played Rakis-Ka as a direct callback to the Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, given the weird extraplanar origins of Devourers in general.  They’re supposed to be wanderers on the cosmic verge that end up being driven mad and turned into undead by the strange dimensions they discover.  Combined with the fact that Rakis-Ka specifically wanted to tear their souls apart only added to the characterization.

There’s a scenario maguffin in the form of the divine relic that wiped out the Aboleth which the characters have to destroy as part of the adventure.  Generally, it’s just a static pile of Hit Points and Hardness, but it happens to be guarded by a Neh-Thalggu.  These are fascinatingly wretched abominations that collect the brains of their victims and use them to power their abilities.  The Neh-Thalggu in question believes that it can use the maguffin to escape back to its home plane, so it takes the interference of the PC’s as innately hostile to its goals.

On their own, the Neh-Thalggu and Rakis-Ka aren’t terrible threats to the overall ability of the characters, but in my case, the two monsters teamed up to beat the PC’s senseless.  It was poor timing on the part of my players, but they managed to survive the encounter, more or less, destroying the maguffin and moving on to the final encounter.

The last fight takes place in what amounts to being the only dungeon in this module, a weird and fleshy pyramid that has been reconsecrated to Demogorgon.  (Rakis-Ka was especially fond of this place, as it was something of ‘a heresy lain over top of an abomination’ or something similar.)  The pyramid acts as the final step in the production of the black pearls, as they are strengthened in a substance called ‘the Black Bile of the World,’ a caustic and flammable sort of oil that my players immediately grew to loathe.  In Golarion terms, it amounted to being the unholy blood of the god Rovagug, referenced here as Holashner.  Within the pyramid was a leveled Kopru Cleric of Demogorgon and one final abomination, a tentacled creature that looked similar to a Carrion Crawler but was adapted to swimming in the Black Bile.  Since it had unrestricted movement and vision, along with Fast Healing, in the Black Bile, it just swam around in it while taking pot shots at the group.

Between this creature and the Kopru Cleric, my players were nearly ready to give up on the module.  I’d recently allowed them to advance their characters into Mythic Progression, as per the recently released hardcover from Paizo, but even so, they were stymied by the encounter.  Much as I loved the setting, the combination of the two monsters ground the game down to the point that there was a collective vote for a hiatus.

We’ll see what happens when we pick the Adventure Path back up, but for the time being, thus ends my overview of Savage Tide.  Further updates as situation warrants.

Savage Tide #5 – Tides of Dread

The end of the last module had the characters narrated through the remaining twenty odd miles worth of jungle to the gateway to the civilized lands at Tanaroa.  From there, they were conducted directly toward the colonial village of their patron at Farshore, their arrival coinciding directly with an attack by pirates.

Or at least, this is what will happen if you proceed directly from the end of the last module into Tides of Dread.  My group managed a sidetrip for the sake of both flavor and experience.

Back in Dungeon Magazine #114, Paizo had decided to set an adventure on the Isle of Dread, using the setting for a one-off adventure with heavy weather, benevolent zombie masters and the requisite dinosaur encounter.  Torrents of Dread had the crew of a expedition ship arrive outside the village of Mora where a sinister plot threatened to lay waste to the surrounding civilized villages.

What’s interesting about this module is that it was published almost exactly two years before Paizo started into the Savage Tide Adventure Path, and the accompanying article outlines most of the relevant plot of the path, as far as the events that take place on the Isle of Dread are concerned.  Most of the Demogorgon subplot is downplayed, other than the brief mention of the Demon Lord as the patron of the foul and degenerate Kopru.  Much like the original Expert Module that it was based from, the adventurers are largely assumed to have arrived on the island before the plot of the module starts.

The actual adventure for Torrents of Dread is centered on a dungeon crawl beneath the village of Mora, wherein the characters have their first encounter with the Kopru, the oddly non-Abomination creatures responsible for much of the strife surrounding the Isle of Dread.  In the context of this module, they’re something of an end boss, lying at the end of the dungeon complex as they attempt to summon what seems to be a manifestation of a Lovecraftian Elder God to destroy the island.  All in all, the adventure is a short one, but it’s pretty evocative, incorporating both the natives of the Isle and its dread masters.  Once this threat was eliminated, my player characters found their way to the colony of Farshore, where a pirate attack was already underway.

As module openers go, this was pretty good.  The pirates are rampaging through the village, and the characters are on a timetable, needing to put down the attack as quickly as they can before the place burns down around them.  As it happened, the group separated, with each character charging after a particular objective.  A couple of characters went to deal with rescuing villagers and dousing fires, while the more martial characters converged on the actual pirates, putting them down as quickly as possible to repel the attack.  In the end, the pirates limp away, and Lavinia emerges to welcome the characters to the long-sought colony that her parents had founded.

There’s a momentary subplot where the characters take to interrogating one of the only surviving pirates, with the option of turning him from the path of evil.  The upshot is that they learn of the longer term goals of the pirate fleet, who intends to return in two months to destroy the place.  And just like that, the clock is ticking again.

The meat of this particular adventure lies with the preparations for war that Farshore has to undertake before the fleet returns.  Much of this is dealt with inside the village, as they organize work crews and short expeditions to shore up the defenses, but there’s plenty to do on the main island itself.  These divide neatly into four separate plots that need to be taken care of over the span of the following eight weeks.

In no particular order, these plots involve the characters salvaging the Sea Wyvern, gaining access to the island’s tar pits, reclaiming the lost artifacts of a dead civilization, and appeasing an aspect of the local volcano god.

Salvaging the Sea Wyvern is a fairly straightforward venture, even though the wreck has been inhabited in the mean time by a Kopru Druid.  He puts up a token amount of resistance before the logistics of overhauling a wrecked ship and returning it to a seaworthy state have to be dealt with.

Gaining access to the island’s tar pits, in comparison, is a much gnarlier affair, as the characters have to deal with a named Tyrannosaur whose hide is scarred with decades of combat.  Temauhti-Tecuani, the dinosaur in question, is a CR 11 encounter whose templates bump it up into solid challenge.  When the characters are finished with this ancient and legendary foe, they’re welcomed by the local tribe of Phanatons, the small monkey-like sentient species that appeared in the first iteration of this adventure.  In gratitude for the characters’ assistance, the Phanaton shepherd them back to their village, holding a celebration in their honor.  And when the characters inquired about the lost civilization of the Rakasta, the Phanaton offer to guide the characters to the last temple.

In the scope of Savage Tide, the Rakasta have been eliminated by the Kopru over the centuries, leaving only their temple and its store of artifacts.  The temple is, naturally, a dungeon crawl.  In fact, it’s really the only one in this module, which is noteworthy in and of itself.  As dungeon crawls go, it’s pretty thin, consisting of about four rooms in all.  It makes up for it with an interesting NPC ally, in the form of a couatl guardian that essentially tests the motives of the characters before offering them his future assistance (components for a Planar Ally spell) and the stock of old weaponry left behind by the lost and lamented Rakasta.  This includes three fairly decent magic weapons, none of which were terribly remarkable.

Finally, the characters were tasked with appeasing a god.  Which, for what it was worth, was easier than it might appear on the surface.

In their travels to the civilized native villages on the island, they happened upon a ritual to Zotzilaha, the fire bat aspected god of the island’s volcanoes.  Once the ritual is completed, the aspect of Zozilaha appears and pronounces doom upon those assembled unless he is appeased for the wrong that has been done against him.  It seems that one of the idols of Zotzilaha has been stolen, and unless it is returned, there will be righteous anger.

This is one of those points where the puppet master behind some of the events of the module series shows up.  Back in module #3, the characters had ventured into the ruins of Tamoachan, exploring the ruins therein and finding what seemed to be an oddly out-of-place golden idol that had recently been placed there.  This was the machination of one of the unknown allies of the party, who had caused the idol to be stolen in the first place in order to direct where the characters ventured next.  Being player characters, it was assumed that they brought the statue with them, as it was specifically made of gold.  This is the wrong that was done against Zotzilaha, the golden idol stolen from his shrine.  And once the characters figure this out, they have to return it.

This offers another opportunity for the characters to gain a little experience and some magic items, as the aspect of the volcano god is pleased by their efforts and allows them to plunder his stockpile of sacrifices.  (And again, the hand of the hidden puppet master is revealed when an extra magic item shows up in the stockpile.  It’s sort of funny, in that the reaction of this fearsome god of fire and doom is that of confusion.  Since he has no idea why the item is with the other relics, he just gives it to the characters with a deific shrug.)

Once all of this has been dealt with, the characters return to Farshore to take on the pirate fleet.

I wish I could say that this was a tense and epic battle.  It really wasn’t, from where I was sitting.  Each of the various sub-adventures and colonial improvements to Farshore netted a certain amount of Victory Points, the tally of which would determine the basic outcome of the battle, as it happened around the characters.  If they sat on the beach and drank a succession of daiquiris for the intervening two months, the battle would generally wreck Farshore.  If they did as expected and busted their collective asses to accomplish as many things on the checklist as possible, they’d be able to save Farshore with fairly low casualties.

As it was, my players managed to hit most of the requisite things on the checklist, and when the pirate fleet showed up, they dropped the local equivalent of an artillery blast on the fleet as it sailed into sight.  (This was actually pretty noteworthy, in that they picked one ship in particular to lay waste to, and it happened to derail a significant amount of the plotted events for the invasion.  I shrugged and moved onto the next event.  It made things rather easy.)

The final battle ended up being a pitched combat on the deck of the flagship, where the characters once again came face to face with Vanthus Vanderboren, the villainous brother to their beloved patron, Lavinia.  Having warped his form to that of a half-fiend and trained up in the mean time, he’s a rather deadly encounter, offering the proper sort of villainy to challenge the plots of the player characters.  And should he think he’s about to lose, he attempts to trigger another Savage Tide, similar in scope to the one that pretty much destroyed Kraken Cove.

What was interesting about this battle was that the players had been itching for this fight since the early parts of the first module, when Vanthus trapped them beneath Parrot Island in Sasserine.  They’d found the remains of Penkus, the other man that had been trapped there by Vanthus and vowed to exact their revenge on this odious blackguard.  True to their nature, they brought Vanthus low and recited the relevant parts of Penkus’ vow.  They finally had the chance to destroy their most hated nemesis, and everything else was just icing for them.

Savage Tide #4 – Here There Be Monsters

So.  Let’s brainstorm for just a moment, shall we?  Let’s say that you want to showcase everything that makes your module tick in one single instant, catapulting the characters into the action that you want them to remember and be able to talk about for years to come.  You want an iconic opening to the adventure that calls back to the dusty old glory days of early D&D, when your imagination threw you into the action just a little bit faster than you were really prepared for.  You want something so simply awesome that your players realize why you’ve been wanting to run this particular module series all this time, and you’re able to hand them the payoff.

I’ll give you a second on that one.  And keep in mind that this is coming in the aftermath of the harrowing wreck of the PC’s boat in a vicious tropical storm, so it has to be something truly special to compete with that.  Also, this is the new version of an old classic, so it has to keep some parts of what made the original good.

“As you pick yourself out of the surf, wracked and aching from the swim to shore after the wreck of the Sea Wyvern, you pause to get your bearings.  Out of the jungle a short distance away, there is a crashing sound and a truly massive Tyrannosaurus Rex bursts from the foliage, bellowing.  It sights your characters and charges…”

If you came up with anything resembling the previous, you have my congratulations.  But after all, this is the Isle of Dread.  Both of the original modules and the cover of Dungeon #139 (the first module in the path) took special care to feature the iconic Tyrannosaur attack.  This shouldn’t have stumped anyone that’s familiar with the originals.

The basic upshot of this module is that the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere and have to find their way to the semi-civilized lands of the Isle of Dread.  Separated from their patron, Lavinia, their ship was cast ashore on the north side of the island, while the rest of the expedition waits for them on the south side of the island, several hundred miles distant.  The characters are saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd with them, and a number of dangerous encounters lie between them and the colony of Farshore.

In a lot of ways, it’s sad that Paizo gave up the rights to republish these adventures with the rights to the magazines that they appeared in.  I would have loved to have seen a comprehensive treatment of both this and Age of Worms, along the same lines as the Shackled City book.

Instead, they have had to go back over similar ground in their recent products, with the strikingly similar set-up that serves as the opening for the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path.  The characters are shipwrecked on an island some ways out of Eleder (the Golarion repaint of Sasserine), saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd about the island, and they eventually make their way to a forgotten underground city.  The difference is that there’s no lead-in to the shipwreck, per se, thereby cutting out the introductory modules that I felt improved Isle of Dread in this particular retelling.

We’ll get to the underground city in module #6, for what that’s worth.

From the beach to civilization is something like 120 miles, which the module notes will take something like 10 days to cover.  Since the shoreline tends towards sheer cliffs through a lot of this, and there are water hazards aplenty, the only real way south is overland, through the jungle and mountains.  Following up from the previous wilderness based module, Paizo plunges forward with another wilderness module.  There are, naturally, two dungeons in the midst of all this exploration.

There’s another vague mechanic of ‘ration supplies for the long trip’, but if the party has a Cleric, a Druid or a Ranger, none of this is worth worrying over.  It’s an interesting inclusion, I suppose to create tension and a sense of waning resources, but skill and magic remove most of the inherent risk in any of this.  Not to mention the abundant Terror Birds in the first part.

This was an amusing part of the module for my players.  The first leg of the journey took place in a section of jungle that Paizo saw fit to stock with an abundance of Terror Birds, to the point that they named the area for them.  After the Monster Island sidetrip in the last module, where the Terror Birds were the least of the antagonists – which is saying something, given that they’re 10-foot tall predatory birds that hunt in packs – they treated the multiple random encounters as chances to refresh their food stocks.

The end of the jungle offers up the first dungeon, an old outpost that was abandoned when the main civilization of the island fell to ruin.  As dungeons go, it didn’t offer a great deal of challenge, save for the point when one of the player characters contracted Mummy Rot.

So, here’s the thing.  There is nothing that will change the tenor of a game quite like an incurable disease.  The party specifically lacked a Cleric, having bridged the healing gap up to this point with a Druid and a number of curative wands.  The Barbarian had taken a couple of levels of Oracle for the sake of Prestige Class, but it was nowhere near enough juice to overcome both the Cure Disease and Remove Curse aspect of things.

From this point forward the Gun Mage (a variant of Magus, based on the ideas in the old Iron Kingdoms book) limped along, suffering progressive Constitution and Charisma damage as the disease wound its course.  The PC Druid and the NPC Druid/Expert threw their stock of Lesser Restorations at him on a daily basis, but the spell resistant nature of Mummy Rot – succeed in a DC 20 Caster Check to use Conjuration (Healing) spells against it – made it so only about half of these spells actually succeeded.  And a daily -2d6 Ability Drain is difficult to balance against +1d4 Restoration.

In the end, the rest of the party had to pitch in with their spare Belts of Constitution and Headbands of Charisma to ensure that he didn’t die from the disease as they picked their way down the coast towards civilization.  Without the benefit of these two items, he would have died in the process, so badly had he been afflicted.

The second half of the module deals with a strange and corrupt area in the interior of the island, where the pervasive effects of a temple to Demogorgon has slowly warped the landscape.  Within the ruins of a forgotten village, the vague disquiet manifests in a fairly Lovecraftian fashion, as the plant and animal life twists and writhes with pale tumors and twitching deformations.  There’s a specifically Colour Out of Space vibe to the area, along with a Ravenloft inspired mist that turns the characters around any time they seek to escape the area.

Up to this point, the master of the temple, a wandering Bar-Lgura has been screwing with the characters, casting its various illusions and mischief towards the party to unsettle them.  It runs the gamut from Blair Witch styled stick and dead bird sculptures to using magical darkness to douse the light of their campfires.  There’s a weird sort of subplot involved with the various occurrences, which the players are never going to suss out, so it comes down to having this creature just fuck with the party out of amusement.  This is continued with a crucified Zombie that the demon leaves out to speak cryptically to the characters when they arrive in the area.

At one point, the Bar-Lgura and his mates kidnap the Gnomish Comic Relief to drag back to their temple, thereby ensuring that the characters deal with this nonsense.  It seems sort of unnecessary, being that they need to find and lay low the temple simply to leave the area, but I suppose it speeds things along that way.

The Temple is actually a pretty decent dungeon, and I don’t say that lightly.  It has a lot of interesting call-backs to the old-style dungeons of 1st Edition, with traps, puzzles, and weird monsters.  The weirdest, in some ways, was the Mob-template horde of Fiendish Baboons.  I’d never run into Mobs in any other format, so it took a little reading to make sense of.  And I’ll bitch about Paizo’s weird Monkey Subplot tendencies later.  At least it makes sense to include them in this adventure, given the nature of Demogorgon.

In the end, they have to deal with the Bar-Lgura in what amounts to being a cinematic showdown within the Inner Shrine to Demogorgon.  Their Gnomish Comic Relief is being lowered, round by round, into a fire pit.  The demon is busily bouncing around from foe to foe, and there’s a definite clock running out as the PC’s try to deal with a fairly canny and intelligent foe on his home turf.  It’s a difficult battle, but not impossible, and in the end, he’s dealt with in a properly dramatic manner.  At which point, the ancient cursed statue of Demogorgon animates and attacks, giving the player characters very little breathing room as it tries to finish what the Bar-Lgura started.

Once both the statue and the demon are dead, the characters find they can escape the occluding fog that has stranded them in the jungle.  I had swapped out a minor magic item from the Temple’s coffers for a requisite Scroll with both Remove Curse and Remove Disease, allowing the Gun Mage to survive the trek across the island.  The module ends with the destruction of the Temple, essentially narrating the characters’ eventual return to civilization.

Savage Tide #3 – The Sea Wyvern’s Wake

Two notes of addendum to the previous entry:  The corresponding Dragon Magazine entry for the adventure path dealt with the surrounding area near Sasserine (some of which dealt with references to Shackled City, which was set in the area as well), but none of the interesting stuff is built out very much.  There’s the impression that a good portion of these adventure hooks were meant for flavor, as there’s a bit more of an imperative to follow the threads within the adventure path itself.  Were there a longer game set in Sasserine, these would be great to work with and follow up on for the sake of a campaign.  As it is, the characters are supposed to be gearing up and getting on a boat at the outset of this module.

And that’s the second addendum.  The characters found a boat in the last adventure.

The boat in question was one of the spare pirate ships that was salvageable from the flaming wreckage of Kraken Cove once the Savage Tide Pirates had been dealt with.  This was one of those strange points where I ‘suggested’ that one of the player characters invest in the relevant skills for sailing, as it would otherwise have been left behind when they had to flee back to Sasserine to save Lavinia.  So, at about third level, the player characters have their own boat, the Sea Wyvern.  Which brings us to the name of the module.

By and large, this is an exploration module, with what amounts to be only one dungeon in the midst of it all.  As it went, I really liked this as a change of pace, having dealt with fairly tedious dungeon crawls in each of the first two modules.  The characters are more or less stuck on board their ship, navigating about 3,000 miles over the course of nearly three months time and stopping occasionally for supplies and to investigate strange happenings.

The module comes with a stock of NPC’s whose purpose is mainly to inconvenience the characters with their wacky shenanigans, including the overprivileged noble who insists on bringing his horse, the optional NPC captain if none of the player characters can sail, the annoying Gnome archetype who serves as comic relief and so on.  There’s also a continuing subplot concerning the former leader of the thieves’ guild that the characters destroyed at the end of the first module.  She’s stowed away on the ship and starts vaguely sabotaging various things on the expedition.

This was a weird sort of thing, to be honest.  I’d thought about playing up this particular idea, but the more I tried to implement it in the scope of the adventure, the more pathetic it seemed.  The last time the characters had seen the NPC in question, she’d been canny and prepared, able to escape from what seemed like a dead end trap.  There had been a vague sort of reprisal in the second module, when assassins had been sent after the characters on their way to save Lavinia, but that ended up being more of a distraction than anything else.

So, to have the NPC master of the thieves’ guild show up, broken and ruined by the efforts of the player characters and seeking some petty sort of revenge…  it just seemed sad.  There’s also the implication that the characters can just toss her overboard once she’s discovered.  As far as recurring villains go, she honestly could have played a much more interesting role in the further adventures, but as she was presented here, I didn’t even bother.  I’d already been too disinterested to make the raid on the thieves’ guild much more than a by-the-numbers dungeon, and having this character return this way was a bit of a waste of time.

The various encounters along the voyage are pretty simple and straightforward, including a pirate attack, a single ruins exploration (a callback to the AD&D module, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), and a couple of monster attacks.  The dungeon isn’t anything terribly complex, and along with adding flavor, it offers a bit of foreshadowing and some amount of puppet mastery on the part of as-yet hidden manipulators.

There were two encounters that stood out in the course of the adventure, one of which was intentional on the part of the module writer, and one that strangely appealed to my players.  The bigger one amounts to being the end set piece of the module, a sort of ghost story setting in a haunted sargasso where the players end up trapped with their ship for the foreseeable future.  The sargasso is the result of a massive intelligent plant that has drawn in ships over course of apparent decades.  The characters investigate the various wrecks, even as zombie-like plants animate and attack them, whispering over the green stillness in the dead of night.

So, yeah.  Horror sidequest.  I was a huge fan of it.

The other encounter was an island shortly before the Sea Wyvern is forcibly separated from Lavinia’s ship, the Blue Nixie, by a storm.  The two ships happen upon a sizable rock in the middle of the ocean, some 150 miles long and given to 1,000 foot cliffs.  The text of the module states that there’s very little of interest to be found on the island interior, but it’s home to Terror Birds, Rocs, and Monstrous Vermin.  For my own purposes, I framed it as a sort of Monster Island type Kaiju encounter.  From their ships, they saw what appeared to be normal sized birds circling the cliffs, along with normal seeming crabs, until such point as one of the scholars pointed out the massive height of the cliffs themselves.  They ended up scaling the cliffs, fighting a flock of Terror Birds and a giant crab roughly the size of a minivan, and returning with all manner of food.

Speaking of which…  there was a strange sort of mechanic that had been suggested for inclusion within the module, where the characters had to track their food supplies over the course of the voyage.  This would have added tension with the NPC that insisted on bringing along his horse, as well as any sort of delay for exploration, but for the most part, there are plenty of opportunities to replenish both food and water, so the whole thing seems like an exercise in pointless accounting.  And when the characters can bring down a herd of Terror Birds and a Giant Crab of legend and note, there’s not much incentive.

Once the characters are free of the weird horror of the sargasso and have reoriented themselves towards the distant horizon and the Isle of Dread, it’s pretty much straight narration from that point on.  They manage to run afoul of another massive tropical storm, having been separated from Lavinia’s ship with the first one, and finish the module shipwrecked off the shore of the Isle.  All in all, it’s a pretty dramatic end to their trip, and with the opening of the next module, they drag themselves ashore, untold miles from their destination.

Savage Tide #2 – The Bullywug Gambit

I’ll admit it.  I find dungeon crawls to be somewhat tedious.  I realize that it’s part and parcel of the D&D Experience, such as it is, but my tastes in more cinematic games have ruined me for the 5-foot square and dropping into tactical combat for the sake of filling the experience point bar.  There are a minimum of two serious dungeons in every single Paizo module, even when the rest of the adventure is based on some other general idea.  Even Kingmaker, with its wide open hex-based exploration included enough dungeon crawl action to keep the grognards from howling.

So, for better or worse, I’ve found myself abbreviating certain parts of my adventures when the action reduces itself to room by room explorations and tactical maps.  I’m not even remotely possessed of the OSR reclamation of rubbing every surface within a room to discover the hidden compartments, simply because I look around my own house and see how much time would be spent doing that here, only to find a collection of lint balls and the occasional lost dice that the cats had decided to bat under the couch.

In the first module, I accelerated the dungeon in the thieves’ guild.  For the purposes of this module, I sped up the action to retake Lavinia’s mansion.

This one was a little frustrating, for reasons other than the dungeon crawl aspect of it all.  I mean, I understand that the dictates of the module design require that extraneous space be cut whenever possible, and were it done any other way, the mansion would have ended up being printed twice in the course of two magazines.  I also understand that, if Paizo had been given the opportunity, they would have revised the flow of things in a collected version, allowing the map to show up in an appendix and referencing it as needed.  Be all of that as it may, it would have been nice to have the chance to wander around Lavinia’s mansion when it was first introduced in the beginning of the first module.  Instead, the first real experience of the place comes when it’s been repurposed as a dungeon for the characters to move through, room by room.

That aside, I think it was my perusal of this module that sold me on running the path in the first place.

The first half of the module concerns itself with following up on a lead on finding Vanthus, the estranged brother of the characters’ patron.  After failing to lay hands on him at the end of the first module, the characters have a tip that he’s left the city to a hidden pirate base some forty miles down the coast.  The characters either charter a boat or hire passage from a local fisherman, and some time later, they arrive ashore outside Kraken’s Cove.

Their first indication that things have gone off the rails comes in the form of vague foreshadowing – hundreds of dead and disfigured animals lie along the beach and the edge of the jungle, their forms twisted with unnatural growths and mutations.  In the distance, a plume of smoke rises from the hidden caves in Kraken’s Cove.  And as they venture closer, things only get worse.

Half of the pirate base is on fire, many of the personnel are dead from similar chaotic disfigurement, and those that are still alive are almost universally savage and deranged.  And the one sane person in the place only has the vaguest of ideas what has gone wrong.  It isn’t until the sixth module that any of the causes start to make sense to the player characters, which is the point that the apocalyptic scope of the underlying conspiracy starts to become clear.

The practical upshot is that Vanthus triggered a potent magic item that induced the wave of chaos (called a ‘Savage Tide’ as a name check), thereby cluing him into the larger events that he intends to be involved in.  He managed to ride out the wave of chaos and escape, leaving the characters to deal with the aftermath.  The pirate base is a fairly interesting dungeon scenario, but with a couple of tweaks, it could become more of a blockbuster action sequence, with toppling rope bridges, drifting pirate ships and daring swings across smoky expanses of water.  (Most of this is already present, but it’s sadly de-emphasized.)

The air of mystery and the wreckage of a catastrophic event were what sold me, and the potential for high action is a solid hook.  Sadly, like many Paizo adventures, there isn’t much art to portray the setting for players.  I would have liked a view of the cove, ships on fire and strange figures capering on the beach, to use as a visual aid before sending my player characters to their eventual doom.

Once inside, the characters find the one surviving pirate, who fills them in on what she knows.  In an odd twist to the normal adventure logic, she’s to become something of a persistent ally, but only after the characters deal with the large attack force she mistakenly sent as revenge.  She knew Vanthus by reputation, and assuming that he was still living in Sasserine, she sent a group to attack him there.  As a strange irony, they end up at Lavinia’s house, taking her hostage even though she’s similarly indisposed towards her brother.

There’s also a bit of a subplot dealing with another faction seeking revenge for the destruction of the thieves’ guild in the first module, but this is a momentary thing, alongside the festival held in the honor of the defeat of Kyuss.  (This is a callback to the previous adventure path, Age of Worms.)  The players struggle their way through the crowds for the festival, get to the mansion, and fight their way through a throng of bullywugs to their pirate ally’s first mate.

In the mean time, the bullywug tribe (which had been recruited by the first mate) exists mainly as experience fodder, as no one particularly cares if they’re killed off.  Even when the characters find the crewmen, they vaguely shrug when a bullywug priest decides to attack in the face of a peaceful resolution.

In the end, the characters clean up the mess made from killing a tribe of subhumans mistakenly sent by someone they’re likely to rely upon later.  And the largest dungeon of the module is their patron’s house, thereby losing the proper ability to loot the place.  It’s a strange end to the adventure, but there you go.

 

 

 

Savage Tide Review #1 – There Is No Honor

Back in the olden days of D&D 3.5, well before Wizards of the Coast forced them to build their own version of the rules to compete, Paizo was content to run the venerable Dungeon and Dragon Magazines.  They maintained them more or less as TSR always had, with the occasional sop to other gaming companies and their products, but focusing mainly on selling D&D books to people that already knew they wanted more.

It was within the pages of these magazines that Paizo patiently honed their craft, almost as though in preparation for the schism that would propel their company into the big time.  Starting with Shackled City, they built complex strings of adventures into full campaigns, taking adventurers from 1st level all the way into the epic range at 20th.  Before the license for the magazines reverted to Wizards of the Coast, they had managed three such early Adventure Paths, following Shackled City with Age of Worms and concluding the twin magazines’ run with Savage Tide.

Savage Tide fascinated me.  I remember paging through Module X1, The Isle of Dread, back in the day, fascinated by the ideas of it.  Included with the Expert Set D&D Rules (the Basic Set Rules covered levels 1~3, and came with a copy of The Keep on the Borderlands), it took the adventurers on a sea voyage that brought them to an unexplored island on the southern edge of exploration.  If memory serves, it had been set in Mystara, the default setting for all things involved with BECMI D&D.  Therein, the explorers dealt with dinosaurs and a scattering of weird, unplayable races of native creatures.  Generally, it was a showcase for hex-based wilderness adventuring, setting it apart from the more dungeon-based adventures of the Basic Set.

And Savage Tide was Paizo’s attempt to bring it all back home.  They’d moved it from Mystara to Greyhawk, built out the progression to offer a lead-in to the great southern expedition, and finished it out with a multi-planar climax to depose the arch-demon responsible for the underlying conspiracy.

Why did this interest me?  Well, I’ll be honest.  Every single module in the series had one element that I absolutely adored.  No matter how the rest of the path fell together, no matter what sort of dull as toast dungeon crawl was put in to fill space – there was always some element that I absolutely wanted to run, somewhere in the module.  This is not to say that the modules were bad, by any means, but there is a bit of a formula to many of them.

The first adventure in the series starts off simply enough:  The characters are tasked with resolving a minor dispute between a noblewoman and a corrupt harbormaster.  Naturally, this whole affair sets the stage for greater intrigues, as there are other factions and interests moving against the noblewoman, even as the characters get involved.

From there, the characters accompany their patron to retrieve the family fortunes from the city vaults (most of the reason she wanted to settle the dispute with the harbormaster was to retrieve her father’s signet from the ship held by the city), only to discover that someone had already looted her inheritance.  The game was afoot.

Together with that month’s Dragon Magazine, the players were given a pretty well detailed rundown of Sasserine, the southern city founded as an outpost for the more civilized lands to the north.  In the scope of Greyhawk, it was hell and gone from anything remotely cosmopolitan, sitting on the edge of the Amedio Jungle.  For my purposes, setting the game in Paizo’s Golarion, it ended up in Eleder, the southern port city on the edge of this world’s untamed jungle continent.  Any amount of reading showed the general lack of concern within the Paizo staff, as both cities shared very similar origins and traits.  Both were established as frontier settlements centuries before, largely abandoned by their colonial masters, and take their names from the women whose acts of bravery allowed the cities to be founded in the first place.  The only serious difference lies with the respective sizes of the cities themselves, as Sasserine is about twice the size of Eleder, a difference that I assume is due to its role in the Adventure Path as the home base for the player characters.

The only downside to any of this is that, by its very nature, the characters are only going to be able to spend a couple of levels wandering around Sasserine before they have to set sail for the unknown.  Sasserine is extremely detailed for the purposes of setting, and in proper Paizo fashion, filled with all manner of possible intrigues with all of the various factions that the players are allowed to join up with.  And being that half of the second module takes place outside of the city, the actual time spent in the city amounts to being a module and a half.  As of the third module, the ships have set sail for adventure and whatnot.

In the scope of There is No Honor, there are what amounts to be two dungeon crawls.  I found the second one, set in the underground warrens of a small thieves’ guild, to be somewhat tedious, as only a couple of the encounters served to actually advance the plot.  (This was where I dropped a couple of hints to my players, advising them to put out the money for a judiciously applied Wand of Sleep to speed the adventure on.)

In comparison, the first one is still muttered about in hushed tones and undisguised scowls.

Upon discovering that her fortunes have been plundered, the characters’ patron, Lavinia, sets them on the trail of her estranged brother, Vanthus.  As they’re to find out, Vanthus was specifically responsible for the ill fortunes that have befallen Lavinia in recent months, starting with murdering their parents and culminating in stealing everything that he could lay hands on.  Lavinia, for her part, wants to redeem her brother from whatever evil he’s doing, but this ends up being a short-lived goal.

Tracking down Vanthus, the characters are lured to an old smuggler’s den on one of the unclaimed islands in the city’s harbor.  Once there, they are trapped inside the network of tunnels by Vanthus, who kills the informant that led them there, tosses his body down the hole they’ve descended into, cuts the rope and rolls a boulder over the mouth of the hole itself.

It should go without saying that the players are bent on revenge from this point forward.

What follows is a harrowing exploration of undead ridden warrens, disastrous encounters with flesh-eating crabs, and a daring escape through a submerged sea tunnel into the bay.  Along the way, they find the corpse of a former ally of Vanthus, whose hand-written note swears revenge from beyond the grave.  If they could have managed it, my player characters would have made this guy their patron saint.

There was an interesting sort of unstated mechanic in the module, where it became a better option for the characters to rely on Armor spells rather than actually invest in physical armor.  Most of the adventure takes place around open water (not counting the escape through 70 foot of underwater tunnels), so a character in any sort of armor would be at a serious disadvantage.  The module provides a Wand of Armor early on, and it isn’t until some point in the fourth module that the characters started needing to actually invest in real protection.  Even then, they’d come to rely on Cloaks of the Manta Ray (one is found during the third module, thereby showcasing its utility), so as to minimize the danger of trying to swim in armor.